Perhaps we need no social scientist to explain the enviable progress and change that has taken place in rural areas. We held a series of dialogues in courtyards of households or while walking along the aisle of paddy fields to get the views of the rural people about development that they witness.
In the opinion of the of villagers, the 'hero' of rural development or transformation is the 'Noya Dhan' (New Paddy). It was introduced under the aegis of the Green Revolution, and in the name of Modern Varieties (MVs). Especially in dry season (November-May), the Noya Dhan has breathed a new life in agriculture. MVs have replaced low-yielding traditional varieties (TVs), especially showing the door to the once most prominent Aus season (March-August). But in the Aman season (July-December), TVs are still grown due to some inherent advantages of these varieties. First, they are good for puffed rice (Muri, Chira) as well as highly spiced dish of rice (Polao) that have growing demand in the market. Second, some of them are less susceptible to diseases, more tolerant to drought and flood, and provide some harvest even after the recession of floods. Finally, the paddy plots are so differentiated in terms of elevation that some are more suitable for TVs than MVs. For these reasons, the cultivation of TVs is widespread especially in unfavourable areas where agro-ecological condition deters adoption of MVs.
Rural people reckon that the spread of MVs has made all the differences in breaking from the past - turning acute food deficit into surplus. With ebullience in oral history, they hail MVs as their hero (Noya Dhan Amader Nayok) as it has helped them attain self-sufficiency (Shoyomvor) in food-grain production - especially rice. With only 5-7 maunds of paddy output per bigha (=33 decimal) from TVs in the past, the shadow of starvation used to loom large. Those days of pitch darkness are gone. At present only two bighas of land with MVs (BR11, Biridhan 28, 29) provide the outputs, which required 5-6 bighas of land few decades back. The yield per acre has gone up from 400 kg to 1100 kg. Metaphorically speaking, self-sufficiency is the 'heroine' in the film or drama that we call rural transformation.
But this is only the tip of the iceberg. With increased productivity of land under cultivation, the farmers now utilise the extra space to experiment with non-rice crops. Ridiculing the past perhaps, various crops like wheat, maize, potato, vegetables - even flowers and fruits - now occupy the fields holding their heads high. The poet once said, "In autumn, O mother mine/
In the fully blossomed paddy fields/ I have seen sweet smiles spread all over (Oma, Aghrane tor vora khete ami ki dhekechi modhur hashi). Now sweet smiles seem to spread across the fields almost throughout the year.
While eulogising, the villagers spoke more about new technology. Of late, in some parts of rural areas (especially in Barishal and Jashore), hybrid varieties are being considered as the highway to food security. Although alleged to be of coarse quality and tasteless, the yield rate at 30 maunds per bigha of hybrid paddy has been the main attraction. When asked as to why they should go for such 'inferior' quality rice, they aired the famous adage: Bhikshar chal kara ar akara (Beggars should not be choosers). Therefore, it is no wonder that in some selected areas, this variety claims about one-fourth to one-third of cultivated land. Meanwhile, the farmers know that though the hybrid varieties used to be imported from China once, local supply chains have now developed and, and the market has become more competitive. In this way the rural areas, caught by Malthusian nightmare in the immediate post-independence era, could come out of the shadow of famine. MVs have emerged as saviours.
Finally and more importantly, farm practices have also undergone remarkable changes. Acute labour shortage has invited massive mechanisation in tillage, threshing, harvesting and watering fields.
According to the oral history, food security has improved to the extent that rural people do not have to eat worthless, non-edible vegetables anymore, or look confusedly at opaque water from boiled rice. If not anything else, at least three meals a day are now available. The grain of truth in this feeling of comfort is supported by contemporary writings on food security. The fiery poems of earlier decades - truly reflecting the acute food crisis - are hardly heard these days. Similarly, the Monga in North Bengal no more attracts newspaper captions.
Oral history reveals that the strength of the hero, called MV, has been buttressed by infrastructures like roads, schools, electricity and irrigation. The reason that rural areas could overcome many of the earlier bottlenecks is adducible to the development of infrastructure.
Roads have reduced the distance between rural and urban areas to increase the mobility and malleability. On account of that again, access to inputs has become timely and cost-effective; marketed surplus has gone up. Expansion of communication network led by roads has also helped spread NGO activities and extension services in nooks and corners. People hold the view that extension networks on family planning, literacy, sanitation, etc., have had positive impact on fertility reduction, increased school enrolment and falling infant mortality.
Abdul Bayes is a former Professor of Economics at Jahangirnagar University. [email protected]